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Geez, where'd the year go? It seems the older I get, the faster time flies. Looking over my reviews this past year, I was surprised to find that I wrote up over two dozen pieces of equipment. Where did I find the time? Balancing a real job, family and my audio jones is one serious juggling act.
If I had to pick one component this past year that completely surprised me, it would undoubtedly be Echo Busters' acoustic room treatments. After consulting the folks at Echo Busters, I purchased their Package #2 for $1,464.95. It features four Corner Busters which are installed in the upper corners of rooms; five Echo Busters which are large panels for absorbing those pesky wall
reflections; and a pair of Bass Busters which use a combination of absorption and diffraction to improve soundstaging and bass performance. The results? Greater focus, improved transparency, less smearing plus a more defined and dimensional soundstage. Heck, even the bass became slightly more extended yet tauter with greater control. This is quite possibly the best money I have spent yet on audio. Unfortunately, audiophiles would rather spend their hard-earned cash on the current flavor-of-the-month interconnect or that new "Class A" preamp. Room treatments just aren't sexy enough. Where do I plug this thing in? Where are the fancy gold nameplates and the 300Bs? Perhaps those disappointing $4000 speakers you just sold on Audiogon might have been the bomb as my kids would say - if only your room was properly treated. Echo Busters offers awesome bang-for-the-buck value in my book - and oh yes, these busters come in a wide variety of colors and patterns to suit any décor. Even my wife likes them.

Where does one go when upgrading from the entry-level cartridge included with most inexpensive turntables? Sure there are plenty of multi-kilobuck carts for those with deep pockets. No doubt you'd love to own a Shelter 901 at $1500 or a Koetsu Rosewood Signature for $3500. I know I would. But what if you're on a tight budget and only have $200-$300 to spend? How about an Ortofon 540 Mk II for $289? The 540 is a wonderfully smooth cartridge with a rich midrange, terrific bass and clean extended highs. This moving magnet will knock your socks off if you are coming from an Audio Technica AT95E, Sumiko Oyster or other entry-level carts. An excellent alternative to the now retired Shure V15MR. For the money, it's a steal.

I heard lots of speakers this year. Thankfully for their manufacturers and my sanity, I didn't review them all. One that stood out way above the speakers that did impress was the Green Mountain Audio Callisto. This diminutive yet curvaceous beauty is a true benchmark in two-way loudspeaker design. It mates much of the immediacy and emotive qualities of the best single driver designs with the extension and smoothness of the better multi-way speakers yet without the fatigue-inducing distortion and time/phase anomalies of either design methodologies. I am less aware of sound coming from boxes than with any other speaker. In my room, there's just me and the music.

My fave amplification component this past year was the cute little Leben CS-300X. A lovely sounding amplifier that could easily form the basis of an exceptionally musical yet affordable system, it's an amp that defies critical analysis and allows one to just kick back and bask in the music. Mate it with an Eastern Electric Minimax CD player and a decent speaker such as the DeVore Gibbon 7.1, Zu Tone or GMA Callisto and you'd have a supremely involving system for less than $7500 that would put many far more expensive rigs to shame. Why not gild the lily and add a pair of Auditorium 23 speaker cables? These are superbly balanced, good value cables. Talk about realsization.

Don't have enough outlets for your system and the thought of those plastic $30 power strips makes you ill? Relax; you don't need to spend $1000 on a power conditioner. For $149, BPT has a solidly built pure copper six-outlet strip that will blow away any Home Depot special. It also features star grounding with BPT's Litz wire to banish
those potential ground loop gremlins. Got more bread to spend? Consider upgrading the outlets to cryo-treated Hubbells, Wattgates or the current fave, Oyaide. Maybe throw in a little ERS Cloth and Bybee filters, too. BPT's Pure Power Center is a terrific accessory with plenty of upgrade options. I liked it so much, I bought one - and dare I say the fully tricked version at less than $800 beat out far more expensive power conditioners in speed, dynamics and overall musicality?

What would a 'best of' list from yours truly be without a little Mahler? DG has just released three mid-priced box sets [DG 477 517-4, 477 518-1 & 477 518-7] of Leonard Bernstein's legendary recordings from the 80s. Nobody has done more to promote Mahler than Lenny. His first cycle now on Sony opened up the floodgates with raw energy and edge-of-seat excitement. His later DG cycle was more mature, grander, broader in tempo and also more mannered. In fact, several critics have accused this set as being more Bernstein than Mahler. That may be true; however, this cycle has much to offer and is a worthwhile addition to one's CD collection. For me, Lenny's readings of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and the 6th are among the best in the catalogue. The rest are not far behind.

This is an exceptional set of Bach's oft recorded Brandenburg Concertos [Naïve OP30412] and one of the better ones I have heard in recent years. These are fresh, lean, texturally transparent period readings that are invigorating yet also completely lacking in self indulgence or bizarre mannerisms. Recorded sound is excellent and a bonus DVD is included. This set has only been out for few weeks; however it refuses to leave my CD player. Rinaldo Alessandrini and his Concerto Italiano have delivered a benchmark recording of the Brandenburgs with lots of interesting ideas without upsetting the tea cart.

Female singer/songwriters seem to be popping up wherever one looks but Toronto based Leslie Feist stands out head and shoulders above them all. Her second effort, Let it Die [A&C 007] is a lovely record featuring her distinctive, sultry vocals on tales of lost love and relationships. Musically, the album has a laid back feel to it with a touch of indie folk, pop and even bossa-nova vibe tossed into the mix. Let it Die features a cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart" and a killer version of the Bee Gees' "Inside and Out". A great quiet little record for rainy days.

You want atmosphere? Danish ambient electronica quartet Bliss [Quango 1003] has got it in spades. Just by the band's name alone, you'll have an idea of what to expect: bittersweet, ethereal, melancholy and, oh so blue. With a heady mix of electronica, classical and African flavors, Quiet Letters is the perfect balm for a lousy day at the office. Pour yourself a tall drink, put Quiet Letters on, lie back on the sofa and wallow away in your deep blue funk. Trust me. You'll feel better after hearing this disc.

Love it or hate it, Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is one of the great works of Western music. It was a revolutionary opera that influenced classical music well into the twentieth century and its physiological ideas even predated Freud and Jung's pioneering work. There have been many great recordings of this opera with Wilhelm Furtwängler and Karl Böhm consistently considered the finest. For me, they pale in comparison to Carlos Kleiber's [DG 477 5355] incendiary and compelling recording on DG. It's lean, swift, and impulsive and mostly beautifully sung, especially Margaret Price's Isolde. The quiet chamber-like sung love music of Act II is to die for and in complete contrast to the high-octane histrionics of other versions. It sends goose bumps up and down my spine every time I hear it. While recorded during several sessions spanning three years, I'm not aware of an interpretation that is so organic and all-encompassing as this one. Kleiber makes one feel as if hearing this work for the first time. Tempos are lean and quick yet don't seem rushed and superficial. The Staatskapelle Dresden is superb; light shimmering strings and winds and brass with an Eastern European flavor. DG recently remastered and reissued this recording in their Originals series. To my ears, it is the most transparent and transcendent reading on record.